Tech Industry

At Microsoft, the yin and yang of Linux

What goes on in Redmond's Linux and Open Source Software Lab? Chief Bill Hilf is the one to ask. Photos: Microsoft's Linux lab

As Microsoft's director of platform technology strategy, Bill Hilf spends half his time trying to figure out ways Windows can work better with Linux and the other half trying to outflank the open-source rival.

Of course, he doesn't describe it quite that starkly.

"My life is like a yin and a yang," he said in an interview at this week's LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in San Francisco. "There is just as much time thinking about the competitive...as there is about the cooperation/interoperability/opportunity. It's equal time."

Microsoft's Bill Hilf
Bill Hilf
Linux lab chief,
Microsoft

Microsoft's Linux and Open Source Software Lab serves as both a place to examine the threat posed to Microsoft products by open-source offerings and a venue for testing software from Microsoft and others that's designed to span that divide. The lab is home to hundreds of servers and desktops that run dozens of different types of Linux and Unix.

The lab's dual purpose reflects an evolution in Microsoft's mind-set when it comes to Linux and open-source software.

Linux is still seen as a competitor that needs to be addressed head-on. The company spends plenty of time and money on its anti-Linux "Get the Facts" campaign, for example.

At the same time, though, Microsoft seems to have accepted that Linux is not going away, and the company wants to make sure it's not turning off customers--or leaving dollars on the table--by ignoring its very real rival.

It's been almost two years since Hilf joined Microsoft after a career managing Linux and Unix for corporations, a tour of duty that included a stint at IBM and the building of a Linux-based data center for dot-com retailer eToys.

Hilf said his conversations with Microsoft developers have evolved since he first joined the company.

"Originally there was a lot of 'tell me how this works versus my thing,'" he recalled. Until Hilf arrived and set up shop, Microsoft relied mainly on outside consultants to provide reports on how the other half lived.

Shrewder
These days, Microsoft is growing shrewder about open-source software. The Redmond, Wash., company has realized that some of its businesses--such as the management tools and Virtual Server units--can boost their bottom line by offering better Linux interoperability.

"Microsoft is a very opportunistic company," Hilf said. "It is looking for ways to increase its business. We want to continue to build software that sells well."

Hilf said that on the Redmond campus, in discussions with colleagues, he often finds himself acting as a proxy for a customer who runs Linux.

"They will come to me saying 'Hey, Bill, is this something you think Linux customers would really be interested in, or is this stupid?" Hilf said.

Hilf's ability to straddle the divide between the Windows and Linux worlds also makes him popular with Microsoft customers, who ask him for advice on getting the two to work together. "A lot of customers say, 'I have mixed stuff too; you must have figured out how to do blah, blah, blah,'" Hilf said.

Even setting up shop amid Redmond's all-Windows world was a challenge for Hilf.

He started with the ambitious goal of creating a server room with dozens of flavors of Linux, along with commercial Unix software from Sun Microsystems, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer. The goal, he said, was to have something "more mixed then any real, sane customer would have."

"No customer runs 40 different versions of Linux on 200 servers," he said. "It's silly."

But getting even one Linux machine via Microsoft's purchasing arm proved to be a challenge. Ditto for the other types of non-Microsoft gear he needed to set up the center.

"Half the stuff I needed to buy I couldn't even buy through our normal processes," Hilf said.

He sat down with Microsoft's internal IT folks to explain the Linux lab's needs. He found himself speaking a foreign tongue to a shop that acts as a test bed for Microsoft software but has little experience with rival products.

"As a policy, I don't run anything that competes with Microsoft," Microsoft CIO Ron Markezich said in a December interview with CNET News.com. "My goal is to make sure Microsoft products are the best products in the world. It's an easy choice for me, in that sense, to run Microsoft technology. We don't run Unix. We don't run Linux. We don't run Oracle. We're 100 percent Windows, SQL Server."

Not surprisingly, Markezich's underlings were a little stymied by Hilf's requests.

"After a lot of discussion, they said: 'We're going to put a piece of fiber through the wall. What you do from there is up to you. Just make sure you follow our security guidelines,'" Hilf recalled.

Inside the egg
Though the Linux lab chief was able to set up his own networking layers, it was a challenge to get access to things like e-mail and instant messaging. Even browsing the Internet was hard.

"We are this hugely mixed environment inside the egg of a totally Microsoft IT environment," Hilf said.

More than once, Hilf was thwarted by bugs--glitches in Microsoft software, glitches in open-source products and even in third-party software designed to help the two technologies talk to each other.

One example, Hilf said, was on the instant-messaging side. There was an IM client called Gaim that allowed connectivity to MSN instant messaging, but the program was not able to use the HTTP protocol, the only technology means available to Hilf. So he set his team of open-source software experts to write the needed patch. He submitted it to the open-source group that oversees Gaim's development and the changes were accepted.

"Now we can use it, and so can everyone else who uses Gaim," Hilf said.

In other cases, the glitches were on the Microsoft end, and Hilf said he let the Microsoft product teams know about them.

These days, Hilf is able to do more than just pass bug reports along to the Microsoft product teams. One big area of work focuses on the "R2" update to Windows Server 2003 that Microsoft plans for later this year. The update will include an overhaul of the current "Services For Unix" tools that currently ship with Windows.

"We're right now running a whole battery of tests across AIX, Solaris, HP-UX, tons and tons of Linux, even Mac OS X, making sure that (R2) really holds water," Hilf said.

As a lifetime Unix guy, Hilf believes he is helping Microsoft to help make Windows a better option for companies than either Windows or Linux are today.

"At the end of the day, we're in it for business reasons," he said. "I exist for business reasons. I do not exist as a PR stunt or as sort of an olive branch."